Three Boys Behind Barbed Wire, 1944

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This photo is called “Three Boys Behind Barbed Wire”, taken by Toyo Miyatake in 1944. As a professional photographer and a Japanese-America, Miyatake snuck film into the internment camp Manzanar and built a camera out of scrap wood, since cameras were strictly forbidden inside the camps.

(Photo by Toyo Miyatake, courtesy Toyo Miyatake Studio)

The photo shows three young boys standing at a barbed wire fence with a large watch tower in the background. There is much symbolism in this one photo alone. For example, Miyatake purposely chose young boys rather than older boys or adults to pose for this photo. The reason for choosing younger subjects helps to convey their innocence. Miyatake also made a point to place the tower in the background of the photo. The watch tower is massive and looming over the camp, in contrast with the small stature of the young children.

Toyo Miyatake was a man who migrated from Japan to Los Angeles when he was 13 to join his father. At only 27, he bought a photography studio and began receiving awards for his work. When WWII started he was interned and smuggled a camera lens into the camp and made a camera body from wood. He spent 9 months secretly photographing the true plight of the Japanese Internee. When he was first found out he had his camera taken away, but they slowly allowed him to photograph again, first with a WRA “assistant.” He made over 1000 exposures during his time there and was celebrated upon his release.

Japanese internment camps were established during World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt through his Executive Order 9066, which affected the lives about 117,000 people—the majority of whom were American citizens. From 1942 to 1945, it was the policy of the U.S. government that people of Japanese descent would be interred in isolated camps. Enacted in reaction to Pearl Harbor and the ensuing war, the Japanese internment camps are now considered one of the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.

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